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Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and…

Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience,…

by Evan Thompson

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Waking, Dreaming, Being
Evan Thompson
January 16, 2017
Columbia University Press 2015
I spent almost exactly 2 months getting through this difficult book. It is an attempt to link modern concepts of neuroscience to ancient Buddhist philosophy. The author is primarily interested in how states of meditation can illuminate what it is to be conscious. He approaches this by discussing various types of consciousness in dreaming, lucid dreaming, and meditation. He presents a debate on perception, arguing that it comes in discrete bits, not as a continuous stream. He branches into near death experiences, since the Buddhist thought is that at the moment of death there persists a few moments of pure awareness, after a sequence of withdrawals from the sensory world, the body, from hydration, and finally from breath. He attended a workshop on contemplation of death, meditating about the reality of death and experiencing the heaviness and feeling of loss of control through meditation. He mentions several examples of monks who stopped breathing, continued to sit in a mediation position without decomposing for days. This is taken as signifying that the master was in a state of pure awareness, although it more likely is a result of atmospheric conditions. There is a speculative model of how the usual experiences of flying, and out of body perspective come from dysfunction in right frontal and occipital cortices, and the feeling of a presence, meeting and communicating with spirits, might be due to left hemisphere dysfunction triggered by poor perfusion during an arrest. The final chapter talks about the self as a process, and how it arises from the ongoing processes of thinking. Indian Buddhism uses the concept of the five aggregates to describe the bodily and mental states of a person. They are listed as material form (including physical body and sense organs), feeling, perception/cognition, inclination/volition, and consciousness. The self is not an entity or substance independent of the brain, but the everyday subject of experience and agent of action, and a result of a process "You are unique not because you possess an essential metaphysical quality that differs from the essential metaphysical quality of everyone else, but because you have emerged from a unique and unrepeatable set of conditions" "I-making" is a self-specifying system in which the "I" is no different from the process "rather like the way dancing is a process that enacts a dance and in which the dance is no different from the dancing".
Overall, this was a book that made me think long and hard, and I was impressed by the rationality and logic in the concepts in Buddhist philosophy. I did not feel I grasped enought able to make a judgment on his conception of the self or on the usefulness of meditation, but I think I want to know more. ( )
  neurodrew | Jan 16, 2017 |
A chewy book. Thompson's trying to put together a philosophy of the self which works with neuroscience and with Buddhist, Hindu, and Taoist teachings about the mind and the self. I don't think I caught half of it -- but what I did catch was thought-provoking.
  revliz | Aug 23, 2016 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0231137095, Hardcover)

A renowned philosopher of the mind, also known for his groundbreaking work on Buddhism and cognitive science, Evan Thompson combines the latest neuroscience research on sleep, dreaming, and meditation with Indian and Western philosophy of the mind, casting new light on the self and its relation to the brain.

Thompson shows how the self is a changing process, not a static thing. When we are awake we identify with our body, but if we let our mind wander or daydream, we project a mentally imagined self into the remembered past or anticipated future. As we fall asleep, the impression of being a bounded self distinct from the world dissolves, but the self reappears in the dream state. If we have a lucid dream, we no longer identify only with the self within the dream. Our sense of self now includes our dreaming self, the "I" as dreamer. Finally, as we meditate -- either in the waking state or in a lucid dream -- we can observe whatever images or thoughts arise and how we tend to identify with them as "me." We can also experience sheer awareness itself, distinct from the changing contents that make up our image of the self.

Contemplative traditions say that we can learn to let go of the self, so that when we die we can witness the dissolution of the self with equanimity. Thompson weaves together neuroscience, philosophy, and personal narrative to depict these transformations, adding uncommon depth to life's profound questions. Contemplative experience comes to illuminate scientific findings, and scientific evidence enriches the vast knowledge acquired by contemplatives.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:08:41 -0400)

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